Which publicist/designer couple have hit a speed bump in their marriage? Rumor has it that they are sharing separate quarters and that she has been seen on the arm of a well-known piano player. True love, revenge, or PR scam? Only the piano man knows for sure.
I predict big things for the Hollywood starlet opening on Forty-second Street in August. Her voice, her moves, it's the best thing she's done in ages. You heard it here first, darlings.
Fifth Avenue's most daring bag lady and her darling designers have done it again. Current buzz on the street says that the It Bag for the spring season is part of the Sonata line from V.
V. Yup, that's me. Now I own a prosperous leather shop on Fifth Avenue, and I'm not going to name names, because the purpose of anonymity is to stay anonymous. Every day celebrities waltz into the store, celebrity wannabes bumbling right after them. All to buy my bags. It's a hell of a rush, and I like to have fun with it every now and then. (It'll be our little secret.)
If you shop on Fifth Avenue, you'll really appreciate this one. Here's the drill:
"Are you looking for something special today?" I ask.
"I'm not sure," the customer says in that Botoxified highbrow tone that tells me she wants me to compliment her on her new $1,500 Viktor & Rolf knockoff and then find a bag to match. Do these people never learn?
"I've got just the thing," I tell her, and then, in my head, I say the magic words:
Baggara, faggara, haggara, fine, puce is what you need to shine.
Immediately her eyes zoom in on the puce monstrosity that is sitting behind the counter. We've discounted it 47 percent, solely because it's an ugly mother and no one would ever touch it.
"I love it," she gushes.
I smile and rack up the price 200 percent.
After the Page Six item, I take in orders for a thousand bags (including some in butt-ugly puce). You wonder how hype starts?
I'm telling you, it's all in who you know. You see those names that get paraded around and become forty-seven-minute celebrities? Well, if you see a certain ex-hooker at mass, I'm telling you it's a sham. As long as she's banking the advances and fighting off the West Coast producers with a diamond-studded stick, she's got connections.
That evening I take off for my usual night out. I signed over my soul to the devil almost two years ago, and I haven't regretted it yet. Having your every whim and desire -- what's not to love?
Pandemonium is a trendy little joint over on 1111 Legion Street. I'm meeting Shelby and Meegan ("two e's, but pronounced Megan; it's a family name"), who belongs to one of the political dynasties from Connecticut (who knew?). Shelby is svelte, tall, with a deceptively casual blond cut. Her hair was specially designed by Frederic Fekkai, and the body was designed by Oreos and Ex-Lax. A deadly combination.
Meegan is much less disciplined, a bluestocking with no sense of style at all who I had met one day while getting a facial. I promised Lucy I'd get them both in the Life Enrichment Program, and now it's up to me to show them the infinite rewards of my life. Oh, yeah, like that's a tough job.
dTo be perfectly honest, I don't care too much for Shelby. It's tougher to be apathetic about Meegan. She is genuinely nice, in a way I don't even begin to understand. We've talked a few times, and I'm feeling the disconnect. I've never spent a lot of time around nice people; that's what happens when you grow up in Hoboken.
I walk into the bar, and heads turn. Men like the lean, Dolce & Gabbana "You can look, but you have to sell your firstborn in order to touch"-clad body, and women notice my bag. Yeah, eat your heart out, New York.
One of the Yankee ballplayers is holding court in the back, and I wink, but don't go any further. I'm a Mets fan, and it seems disloyal. Someday, when I get to be a Level 7 and earn my behavior-modification status, the Mets are going to win the pennant.
I find Meegan and Shelby near the wall in the back. I've been trying to teach them to be bolder, more aggressive, but that's easy when you have no reason to fear rejection.
"Evening, ladies," I say, picking up the martini the bartender has magically provided. It's a good life.
"V" -- she didn't actually say "V," but it's really important that no one knows my real name (Life Enrichment Clause Number 473) -- "you look fabulous!"
We do the air-kiss thing, and Meegan gives me an arm squeeze.
My cell phone rings, and I hold up a "just a minute" finger while I fish it out. Caller ID indicates that it's Harry, and I consider him for only a moment. Then I shake my head and put the phone back in my bag with a little moue. "Voice mail will get it. I'm with two of my favorite friends, and besides, who needs a man anyway?"
Shelby's eyes sharpen with greed. She is close; I know it. I get extra powers for each client I recruit (Life Enrichment Clause Number 10478), and I have been just itching for my next level, mind-reading, aka the Amazing V Sees All.
There's an art to the program, a stealthy give-and-take, and you never ever share the secret until the absolute moment of desperation strikes. Neither Meegan nor Shelby knows anything, although Shelby will soon. She's about to hit the wall. I can tell. With Meegan, well, let's just say she's not really the desperate type. Yet.
I push back my hair and sigh, a great, "oh, woe is me" wellspring of breath. "The shop was brutal today," I say, and then pause for effect. "There was a leak in the Post about the new line, and the waiting list has already started. Julia's assistant called and offered me five thou to put her at the top of the list." I roll my eyes to indicate my perpetual ennui. "Can you believe it? Like I could be bought," I scoff.
"A new line?" asks Meegan.
"Yes, Paolo has been busy. It's to die for." Paolo is my mentor, the one who recruited me. He had been the fabbest leather designer in Italy and got promoted to New York as part of the package for me. It is a big ego trip to think that my soul was worth a move to New York. I don't know what made me so special, but I give thanks every day because of it.
"I can't wait to see it," Shelby gushes.
I lean in close and smile. "I'll get you the first one."
And there it is. I can see it in her eyes. I have her, and all it cost me was a fucking leather purse. Sad. I don't like Shelby, but I think I would have wished more for her.
"You're the best," she says, joy in her voice.
"We'll do lunch tomorrow," I answer, not disputing it at all. I'll arrange for Lucy to be there. The paperwork and the legal hocus-pocus can take up to two hours, but the 1040 EZ (Lucy took great amusement in naming that one) is available for those in a hurry. Shelby looks to be in a hurry.
Meegan starts making eyes at a broker against the back wall. My gaydar is beeping overtime, but she isn't on the same wavelength. "I think he likes you," I say, just as a conversation starter. "Go talk to him."
She looks hesitant, but lonely, so she moves in his direction. I twitch my nose (purely show business, but it lends an air of mysticism), and the words just pop into my head.
Hetero, Homeo, higgledy hurl, forget your preference and go for the girl.
Immediately he turns and gives her a long once-over. His companion looks a little startled, and I giggle to myself. Just like a man. Give him a heat-seeking missile, and he'll follow it anywhere. After a short five minutes of chitchat, Meegan and her new convert are heading out the door, arm in arm. I take a long draw on my martini. Doing the magic takes a lot of energy, and I get a little sapped, but soon the alcohol is coursing through my veins, reviving the blood flow.
"She bagged him," I say with a satisfied smile.
"Lucky her," replies Shelby, bitchily.
"Ah, every dog has its day, and every woman has her lay."
"I'm being petty and small-hearted, aren't I?" she asks, completely insincere.
"That's what Prozac is for, darling," I drawl, patting her hand.
We share a moment of awkward insincerity as I contemplate my soon to be ESPness and Shelby contemplates her aloneness.
I spot him before Shelby does. An eleven-point buck in the patent-pending Armani suit. It's the shoes that do me in. Italian wing tips. I have a severe sweet tooth for Italian wing tips. Some sort of postseventies Richard Gere fetish, I suppose. He meets my eyes, and I feel nothing. However, I figure it's time for Shelby to get some sport. A kind of last hoo-haw, as it were.
I give him a wink that he won't remember -- I do like playing God -- and chant to myself. It occurs to me belatedly that I really shouldn't give over all my spells to the general populace, however, I will say it involves the words wing tips, bon vivant, and clam dip. 'Nuff said. (But you know, I have a tendency for prolixity, so I bet I slip up in the future. Shoot me.)
Mr. Wing Tips locks on to her, and the rest is history. They talk for a good forty-five minutes at the bar, comparing names (which neither know, but it is the ultimate game of social chicken) and complaining about the crowds at Pravda. The conversation turns racy, and I stop listening in. Eventually, they leave.
After I finish my fourth martini, Meegan returns, flying solo.
"What happened?" I ask, mildly curious.
Meegan begs a cosmopolitan from the bartender and sips. "I don't know. It was so great at first. He was Mr. Attentive, talking about how pretty I was and how refreshing it was to meet a woman who seemed so genuine, and then we're kissing, and then he gets this horrified look on his face, and can't get away fast enough. It's me, isn't it?"
My playing-God tendencies develop feelings of guilt, and I'm wondering if Lucy ever messes up. Probably not; I don't think Lucy was born in Jersey. "No, it's not you. I bet he dropped some bad acid or something." Do people do that anymore? I'm not sure, but does it really matter?
"I'm being punished," Meegan says, sounding absolutely sure of herself. And usually she's so...not.
Ah, I say to myself, a mystery's afoot. "Have you been bad?" I pry, because the notion that Miss Milquetoast Meegan might be laden with pepper is just -- delicious.
"My mother died in a car accident."
A car accident? That is so not me. Some people handle death well. I, however, have a bad case of necrophobia. It's quite logical when you consider it. "Must be awful," I say, with what I hope is a sensitive smile.
Obviously I'm a better actor than I give myself credit for, because she continues: "I was in high school, and we were having a huge fight that night. I wanted to go to a weekend party at one of my friends' summer house, and she said no. I told her I wished she were dead. Then there was a big flash of light and this crash."
At this point, I nod politely and grimace. She takes a swallow and stares off into space, and I'm thinking we're done. Gee, no, I'm wrong. "I was seriously banged up, and the doctors had to remove a lot of my insides. When I woke up from surgery, they told me she was dead."
It's a heartbreaking story, but I've gone through my entire sensitive repertoire, and serious panic is starting to take hold. I take a long sip of my drink to avoid having to say anything understanding, soothing, or empathetic, only to discover that the glass is not deep enough.
"You know what I want now? More than anything else?" she says with a dead laugh. Then she's looking up at me, and I realize that she wants me to ask.
"I want a kid," she says, stealing a cocktail napkin and tearing it up.
Okay, this is better. Again with the disconnect, but I can work with this one. "Babies are nice."
"I can't have any kids of my own. Ever. It's payback, isn't it?"
And now we're talking about infertility. I look around for the nearest exit.
Meegan buries her head on the bar. "Can I have another drink?"
It's about damn time. "Bartender!" I say, and whoosh, a cosmopolitan appears. Slowly Meegan lifts her head, appearing eerily calm. I wait, hoping she's all talked out. However, there is a glint in her eye, and I know that glint. "That's what I want more than anything," she says. "To be pregnant. To feel a life growing inside me. And I can't...."
Awkwardly I pat her head. It's the best I can do in the circumstances. She starts inspecting the men at the bar, and I know that look. Every woman knows that look when it's closing time and you're drunk.
"Maybe you should go home. Sleep it off," I say, doing my best to rescue what is left of her family values and maybe recruit her into the Life Enrichment Program.
"She thought I was Miss Perfect. I never wanted to be Miss Perfect."
There's a certain irony in this moment. Why is it that women are never satisfied? She doesn't want to live her perfect life in that perfect house in Connecticut, and I would have sold my soul to do just that.
"So don't be Miss Perfect," I say, because I'm not Miss Perfect, but I do understand rebellion. You can't fight it. You just have to give in when the Warrior Goddess strikes you.
Meegan is no longer listening to my advice, which is probably a good thing. She stands up, a little woozy, but she's still got that loose-cannon glint. So much for Dr. V's Philosophy of Life. I console myself with my drink.
"I think I need to go. Thank you for inviting me," she says politely, because she is Miss Perfect and will always be.
"Uh, sure. Anytime," I add.
Then I watch as she takes off through the non-smoked-filled bar, and I sit there alone, slowly getting drunk.
Crises are not for the faint of heart. I've had my share, and that's too much. Give me the even keel of a carefree existence any day. Eventually, my naturally cool demeanor returns, and I get approached by a publicist from Susan Magrino, a castoff from JP Morgan, and a lesbian from Soho. I turn them all down.
I adore Manhattan in the spring. You would too, if you had my life.
Just let me know, I'll have Lucy give you a call.
• • •
I meet Shelby the next day at the Gotham Bar and Grill. When Lucy's not writing the world's dishiest gossip at her Sixth Avenue office, she's there. An office-away-from-office, as it were.
I have my suspicions about the chef here, but with the whole Life Enrichment Program, there's a high level of anonymity. It lends to the air of exclusivity; that's why, for instance, I am "V," and "Shelby" is, well, "Shelby."
Anywhoo, back to the program, which is, of course, the important thing. Absolutely no riffraff allowed. You never know who's doing deals, and it's a great bit of sport to try and figure it all out. In fact, there's a special bookie down in the meat-packing district who takes bets. I put down three thousand on Alfred, but we won't know until 2033, or at least that's what the oddsmakers are saying.
I walk over to Lucy's table (I was scheduled fifteen minutes before Shelby) and seat myself. The maître d' looks offended. Save it for the pope, pal.
She is stunning, as you might guess. Black hair, dark eyes, sort of an eternal Catherine Zeta-Jones look, only a little sharper. She has two cell phones (those cool kind with digital cameras), which are perpetually ringing.
She looks up from her conversation and smiles. Lucy's actually pretty down-to-earth when you get to know her. Just don't get on her bad side. You've heard the stories; they're all true.
I order a Pellegrino and sip patiently. Eventually she kisses into the phone and hangs up.
"My God, can you believe the day I'm having? Oh, the UN. Those poor, misguided souls. What I could do for world peace if they'd just give me a chance. And then Reverend Al is up to his usual hijinks. I have an in, though, so I'm hoping to seal that deal shortly."
I try not to look impressed, but it's hard. Some of my old gaucheness can spring up at the most inopportune times. I murmur a simpatico, "Sounds like hell." And she laughs. Lucy hears a lot of that.
"Well, so tell me about Shelby. I've got all the paperwork here." She pats the birkin, and her phone rings, a digitally modified "MacArthur Park." Lucy is a huge Donna Summer fan.
"Hello, Don." She lip-synchs his full name to me.
Because Lucy has the hottest nine column-inches in New York, everybody wants to be a part of it, and her phone is ringing all the time.
"Yes, yes. I've heard all about your troubles with rehab," she continues.
"Of course I can fix it, but it'll cost you. How much is sobriety worth?"
A very classic moue that would do Revlon proud. "Too bad. Call me tomorrow if you change your mind."
She hangs up and smiles with confidence. "We're running a little tidbit on Page Six tomorrow about rumors surrounding his 'vacation.' He's supposed to be at a spa in Arizona." Lucy laughs. "When will people learn that lies will always come out? Oh, well, maybe he'll come around before the paper goes to bed."
She dabs at her lipstick with the cloth napkin and then folds it into a perfect replica of a swan. "Now, back to Shelby. You've got her?"
I nod. "I'll let you explain the rules, but she's ready."
"You never disappoint me, V."
I smile at her, because I know. I sold my own soul almost two years ago, and my life hasn't been the same -- and trust me, that's a good thing.
One average October day, just after I turned thirty-eight, I was driving down the turnpike, my average daily commute to my average daily job to my average daily life, and I screamed. No one could have heard it from the soundproofed doors in my trusty Toyota (and trust me, you don't open your windows in Newark), but I was done being Wilhelmina Lohman, bending over for every dick and dickina that came along. For me, that was it, and once I finally made up my mind, I was happier than I'd ever been before.
Part of the deal is the soul-recruitment program. Shelby is my third soul-taking, and I'm getting the hang of it. The first two were relatively easy, an assistant DA I had met at a party and the super to my old building (yes, there is justice in the world). I should be feeling an attack of conscience, some twinge of badness, but I don't. Of course, I really don't like Shelby, but still, the lack of feeling bothers me.
I've closed that chapter of my life because, well, to be honest, it pales when compared to fawning friends and high-fashion extravaganzas. And there are bigger things ahead. This is the end of that sort of sentimental schmaltz. I look Lucy in the eye. No doubts here. For just a second, I see a smudge in her mascara, and then whoosh -- it's gone like I never saw it at all. Instinctively I reach for my mirror, check my reflection, but everything's in order. No smudges, no smears, everything is beautiful.
"You don't need to doubt yourself, V. The world is your oyster, and you, my darling, are the pearl. I see great things in your future. You have to trust me on this."
Pinch me, I'm think I'm dreaming.
And then Shelby comes through the door and spots us at the back. She looks a little stunned. Lucy does that to people. It's her aura, her image of pure, controlled power, all packaged in a neat size two. Shelby waits for the maître d' (I'm much more pushy than she is) and smiles at him politely.
I perform the introductions and listen as Lucy begins the Talk. I guess she treats everyone special, because Shelby gets a different spin than I got. Lucy tells Shelby how lucky she is to have such an orderly life, how she is saved from the rigors of the cause célèbre. I'm scanning the annals of my meager French vocabulary and think Lucy's just making that one up, but it sounds good, and Shelby is entranced.
Next comes the pitch. The surprised, "Oh, you actually want the fame and notoriety?" The thoughtful stare up to the ceiling. "Well, there might be a way." Shelby's intensity is palpable, a chokehold that won't let go until your soul is free.
Fascinated, I watch the whole interchange. There's profound human drama at work when someone gives up their soul. Seeing others go through the same hell and insecurities that I did makes me realize how I have grown and matured. Today, I'm above all that shit.
Shelby takes a sip of her drink every now and then, or picks at her salad, but her eyes never leave Lucy's face. Whatever you want, whatever your dreams are. Heady words. Eventually, I get seduced as well, forgetting to critique Lucy's approach. I'm sucked back into the sumptuous reverie of getting whatever you want. I'll repeat that because it's important.
Whatever you want.
Those are the dreams that fire the greed of the world.
My back starts tingling, and I look around. Eyes are watching us, some surreptitiously, some openly. Appraising and envious, all blended together in one ugly palette of emotion. It's a proud moment for someone who used to be a perpetual Z-lister, but that was a long time ago. Back before I was footloose and soul-free.
Shelby is ready to sign, the Visconti pen poised above the paper, but Lucy isn't quite done yet. She rests her chin on her hand and tilts her head in a darling Audrey Hepburn-esque manner. "I don't want you to do anything you'll regret. There's no backing out. Ever. What I try and give my clients is life without conscience. Who needs all that guilt? I mean, really."
She focuses her whole attention on Shelby, oddly intimate in the bustling setting. At this moment, I don't exist, the restaurant doesn't exist, there's only two people left in the world. Shelby and Lucy. And I'm watching the tableau, waiting with bated breath for Shelby to condemn herself to a finite, yet boundless, life.
Lucy taps her fingers on the papers. "You're sure?" she asks.
Lucy continues. "We do ask for a few things in return. I'm a firm believer in rewarding positive behaviors. So, for each client you recruit for Life Enrichment, your powers will be increased to the next level. There are nine levels, and you begin an apprentice program under V's tutelage for thirty days. We do ask that you use your powers with discretion. The system works best if the world isn't aware we exist."
"What sort of powers?" Shelby asks with such repressed malice that I wonder who is going to be the recipient of the seven plagues of Shelby.
"You start with non-life-forms object creation. Basically, it's our most effective program. If Wishes Were Birkins. After you recruit another client, you move into Level 2, personal appearance modification, aka My Salad Days Are Over."
Shelby turns on me. "That's how you do it!"
I smile with teeth that are perfectly white and have never been capped. Hate me, I don't mind; I never was hate-worthy when I had a soul. "All those wasted hours at the gym. Poof! And dessert, all the dessert you want..."
Now she starts to fully appreciate the life before her, and her eyes start to glaze. "What's the third level?"
Lucy points to the paper in front of her. "I can't tell you the rest until you've signed. We have to have a nondisclosure agreement in place with all our clients."
While Shelby signs, Lucy brings out the Life Enrichment handbook -- I've Sold My Soul to the Devil...Now What? -- and gives it to Shel. "You can take it home and pore over the details. If you have any questions, V is there to answer them for you. And remember, it's our little secret."
Lucy's phone rings, and she takes the call away from the table. I'm alone with my new convert. And after the requisite seventy-two hours (not quite standard contract law, but still a nice touch -- you have three days to back out of the deal. After that, you're in forever), my power base will be upped to Level 4.
Shelby looks like a kid at Christmas. "I can just think about something, and then, voilà, there it is?"
I nod, feeling a lot like Santa. It's a good life. "Well, sorta. You have to use a spell, and then it'll appear."
She looks as if she's about to wish up an entire wardrobe from Barney's right there, and I hold up my restraining hand. "Wait. Remember. Discretion."
Her face scrunches with worry. "Oh."
Karan schmaran, heels of air, Edmundo Castillo is everywhere.
"Look under the table," I say, with all the finesse of Harry Houdini. It never gets old.
She lifts the tablecloth and pulls out the signature Bergdorf-Goodman shopping bag. Inside is a wished-up pair of Edmundo Castillo sandals. "I want to do it," she says.
Feeling benevolent, I nod and point to the Frequently Asked Questions in the back, which includes a list of the most common spells.
She closes her eyes, and I can see the magic wash over her. Clients get an almost physical glow, which comes from the four-alarm, multi-orgasmic wash of having your wish granted -- immediately. She squirms in her seat and then reaches under the table. I'm curious to see what her first wish fulfillment is. Your most secret desire is a cornerstone in understanding and undermining the human psyche.
Proudly she brandishes a set of Tiffany Feathers earrings. Personally, I think they're gaudy, but I know better than to say anything. So silently I watch as she absorbs the change in her status. An instant becoming. She sits straighter, more self-assured than ever before, and there are no spells at work for that one.
We celebrate over two pieces of chocolate cake (Alfred's secret recipe) and a cappuccino. Lucy comes back in a whiff of custom-designed perfume, something mysterious and musky, as old as the world, then she waves good-bye and departs for places unknown. All eyes follow in her wake. I feel a surge of admiration for this fascinating female who lifts us above a cheap imitation of life. Shelby and I toast her new soul loss, and she smiles in an almost drunken fog.
Today I can rule the world. Well, okay, I'm only an almost Level 4. But someday...
After all, what good is a soul? Can you borrow against it? Dress it up and parade it down Park Avenue? I feel the eyes gravitate in our direction once more, and I brush back my hair, a modest gesture to acknowledge the silent tributes that are flowing our way.
Just remember, you can have it, too.
Copyright © 2005 by Kathleen Panov